“When I’m sitting with a man and he’s dying”


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The moral imperative – the obligation and responsibility – to ‘carry and hold one another’ is culturally elaborated on many levels of Yolŋu socio-political life. Hence, for example, the title of this clip from my wäwa’s funeral. In the following, taken from John Rudder’s PhD thesis, we get a sense of what it means to carry someone with song as they are dying. I super love this quotation, I think it’s particularly special. (Please note, however, that the translations are not my own.)


“When I’m sitting with a man and he’s dying, the first thing I do [when he’s losing wind and suffering], is sing wata (‘wind’), burrmalala (‘cyclone’). With that song I’m trying to bring that wind, that breath back to him.


If he loses and passes away and lies back on his elbow (‘likan ŋayi dipthun’) like a broken branch, I sing mayku (‘barrukala dharpa [paperbark tree]’). Instead of saying “he’s gone,” I sing the song that says “he is resting in peace” and in that song mention the names of the places and announce with my spirit where his spirit has gone. My mind and my feelings are madayin-ŋura (‘in or at the madayin [sacra, sacred property of the group]’).


Next I sing ‘guku,’ my spirit turning into guku (‘honey, honeybee’) and flying. The song tells me where he’s started and then his journey as guku. Then sing mokuy (‘waŋarr [ancestral form] named Murayana’). Same thing. He looks for sugar-bag and goes on journey [like the waŋarr looking for the hive]. Murayana combines to guku (‘honey, honeybee’) and wata (‘wind’), ŋayi li wandirri, mokuy dhupuma (‘walking along looking upwards’) for sugar-bag.


After mokuy, singing about märr (‘a man’s deepest desires and feelings, likened to a string’) but singing about the string called Yaliyali and Rätja. That string from Djarrakpi links Martjanba, and beŋur (‘from there to’) Cape Shield. The words of the song are: Märr-ndja ŋarra weyinŋumirriy, nhakuna Rätja budutthun (‘my innermost desires belong stretched out long like the string Rätja’); Yaliyali (Maŋgalili), Gulunhuma (‘Maŋgalili, string names for Maŋgalili clan’); Marrtji (‘it goes’) ŋurruwalma, Gandaŋuwala, Gurilkawala, (names of channel between Elcho Island and Matjaka); wiripundya (‘other ones’) Rrimbitja, Garrtjulula, Dhamburrthamburr, Malaŋarri [places on the Wessel Islands]; Gamalwala, Wulaŋaniwala [places around Cape Shields].


Special names for the places linked to the dead person, like the long string Yaliyali that links these places. It is a Guwak (‘bird species’) that links his name. Marrŋu (‘possum’) also climbs along that rope. By singing the song it’s like praying how much we love that mokuy (‘dead person’). Our love is long like the long string. It doesn’t help the mokuy (‘dead person’), it helps our beliefs. We perform in a special way, making buŋgul (‘ceremony’) and manikay (‘song’) so we feel comfort instead of hard feelings or jealousy. He or she is dead without ceremony. It’s like the body being there turns that place into a ŋara (‘sacred shelter’) place.


The first five songs to start are burrmalala (‘cyclone’), dharpa, mayku (‘paperbark tree’), guku (‘honey bee’), mokuy (‘dead person’) and Rätja (‘particular ceremonial string’). Dharpa, mayku and guku, birrkuda tells the dead person that he’s already object-thirri (‘becoming a sacred object’). Those songs also indicate and tell people that the person is dead. I’m sitting close to him and I’m the only one who knows yet. I get the clap-sticks and sing those five songs.


Those five songs also form like a map-section for the mokuy (‘dead person’) to follow, which and where we announce his journey to our special place. For us that song ‘Djärr’ (‘dhupuma ŋayi mokuy’) walking along looking upward he will – the dead one – he’s looking at the honey hole. For me that honey hold is djiwarr (‘heaven, sky above’). It’s called Djärr. I come from Burrumŋur.”



– John Rudder quoting Djangirrawuy (1993, pp. 60-61).






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Filed under Anthropology, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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